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UCF’s Danny Neri still riding high after 3-homer night in Big 12 tourney

A day after hitting three home runs in his first Big 12 Baseball Championship, UCF catcher Danny Neri was still trying to catch up with friends and family who reached out to congratulate him.

One of those to congratulate the senior was ESPN NBA Senior Insider Adrian Wojnarowski, who posted on social media, “Who doesn’t like @DannyNeri39 hitting [bombs]?”

“He and my dad grew up together in Bristol, Connecticut,” said Neri. “They’re best friends. My dad was the best man at his wedding, so we stayed in close touch. He comes to visits every once in a while and he’s always asking about baseball and watching the games.”

Neri became the first player in Big 12 history to hit three homers in the conference tournament. It also helped power UCF (34-18) past Cincinnati, 6-5 in 11 innings, setting up a meeting against Oklahoma State or Texas Tech on Thursday (8:30 p.m., ESPNU).

“I don’t think I’ve ever coached anybody who has hit three home runs, especially in that situation,” said coach Rich Wallace. “That was outstanding. He had four hits, too and I don’t think he’d ever had four hits in one game in his career and to catch 200-and-something pitches and block the balls he did on that block.”

Neri’s performance helped salvage what could have been a disastrous collapse by the Knights, who entered the bottom of the ninth inning leading 5-2 only to surrender three runs that sent the game into extra innings. To add insult to injury, Wallace took a foul ball to the face in the dugout, leaving the first-year coach with a black-and-blue shiner on his left eye.

“I’ve gotten hit but never in the face,” said Wallace. “It was in the ninth inning, which was going to go down as the worst night inning of my life if it had not turned out the way it did.”

Neri’s first home run came in the top of the second when the left-hander turned on the first pitch by Bearcats starter Nathan Taylor and drove it into the right field bleachers of Globe Life Field. The second came in the top of the seventh inning, once again on the first pitch, this one by relief pitcher Griffin Hugus.

Ejection sparks UCF rally but Knights fall short in series finale vs. Texas

The third was in the top of the 11th on a 3-2 count with two outs.

“I got a couple of pitches early that I could have driven, and I missed them, and then I got into that two-strike count,” said Neri. “The last swing was the only one where I thought I wouldn’t hit a home run. I looked up, and the right fielder was tracking toward the wall, and I thought that there’s no way that’s going out. But he went into the stance, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s no way that just happened.’ “

For Wallace, a third home run was nothing more than wishful thinking.

“I was sitting next to [utility infielder Matt] Cedarburg as Danny was up, and I was like, ‘You think Danny could just hit the third one so we can go ahead and win this game?’ and then he hit it and I’m glad he did,” Wallace said.

Neri said he didn’t hit any balls out of Globe Life Field during the team’s batting practice.

“I didn’t think I was going to be able to hit three out of there during the game,” Neri said.

Wallace believes Tuesday’s performance, including Neri’s home runs, can provide momentum throughout the rest of the tournament.

“It certainly doesn’t hurt right,” he said. “We played well for 90% of the game, had a gut-check moment, and responded. If you’re going to do something at this level, at this time of the year, you have got to find a way to win games and win them that way.”

Matt Murschel can be reached at moc.lenitnesodnalro@lehcsrumm

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